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Let's Talk AC/DC (the Currents, Not the Band)

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It is sunny right now in Los Angeles. Which, of course, makes geeky guys like me think about solar energy. It's also something the state and the local government are thinking a lot about lately, weighing increases in California utility rates to subsidize solar panels on residential homes. Great idea. Super simple. But not quite geeky enough.

To really make that solar energy more efficient, we need to revisit that great debate. No, not the Stones vs. the Kinks, not Flock of Seagulls vs. Haircut 100. I am talking about AC vs. DC.

If you are worried that this is about to slip into obtuse electronics speak, rest assured I am about as capable an engineer as my cat. But once you wrap your head around these things, they get pretty simple.

AC currents are what your average dirty coal power plants or damn hydroelectric plants produce, they travel well over very long distances and then come into your home where many of your electronics appliances convert the AC to DC (look at the brick on your computer's electrical cord. That's your converter box.)

Solar panels, on the other hand, make DC power. Right there on your roof. They make exactly what those electronics all run on. But -- and here is the part where it gets all absurd -- before it even enters your home, the solar power's DC current has to convert to AC. That's the way the grid works these days. Only once it is in your home and running into the computer does it gets transformed back into DC power.

That is what we like to call inefficient. So, Hells Bells, what are we gonna do about that?

Well, we got where we are for all sorts of good reasons, all of which go back one hundred years. It is a fascinating and savage tale involving Thomas Alva Edison, George Westinghouse, Tesla (the man, not the band) and the public electrocution of elephants and inmates. In the century since then we have figured out how to put a man on the moon and make waffles in a toaster but, perhaps because our collective unconscious still can't get over the thought of that electrocuted elephant (no more of that, thank you!) we have not revisited how to make our energy systems fundamentally more efficient.

Well now is the time. Because every time that solar panel's energy is converted, from DC to AC and back to DC, you lose energy. You lose double digits of efficiency.

It gets even more interesting when people start talking about plug-in hybrid cars. Because guess what current hybrids run on? DC.

The explosion of semiconductors in our lives and the surging interest in photovoltaics, the need for smarter grids and the new alternatives to the internal combustion engine are all converging to bring a certain urgency to this subject. New technologies always invite new standards. And despite what the seething tea-baggers might tell you, this is the sort of thing the government does quite well. It has set up effective standards for fuel efficiency in cars and the popular EnergyStar program uses clear and informative standards to tell you what a smart washing machine looks like. By the same logic, the government can and should adopt DC building standards to inform people of how they can build smarter, more efficient homes.

So that those solar panels your taxes are paying for can do even more good.

That's all I'm asking for. No legislation, no pork barrel stimulation (though, frankly, I could use some of that.) All I'm asking is that the government adopt and promote standards for DC power.

Promoting standards is probably the most cost-effective governmental move around. All it involves is writing them down in a big book and making everyone aware of them. The good news is, a lot of it's already been written down and is very easily accessible. The Emerge Alliance, a coalition of companies that include Johnson Controls, Philips Electronics, Armstrong World Industries, Nextek Power Systems, and Southern California Edison, has already been working to promote smart and efficient new DC standards. It's all there, just waiting for someone to put the pieces together and spread the word.

So, yeah, it's more than a little geeky and it's kinda hard to imagine anyone making money on this sort of thing. But that's probably what they said about the internet, right?

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